Our culture has been youth-oriented since at least the turn of the last century. There are many reasons for this. At the turn of the nineteen hundreds, it was still a relatively new country. Youth and energy were needed to settle a big country, build roads, canals, railroads, telegraph and telephone lines, dams and skyscrapers. Old, traditional ways, associated with the “old country” in Europe, were being scrapped and new manners and mores invented. We streamlined convention and approached things directly, adopting a manner that is still associated with Americans in business and diplomatic circles. We had the cocky self-assurance of young people who really don’t know what stumbling blocks may lie ahead.
Wisdom, on the other hand, is associated with aging. Wisdom profits from our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others, and has the humility to admit to being wrong. As a nation, we are aging, but our value system hasn’t shifted from a love of what is new, fast, and clever to an appreciation of the wisdom and inner peace that is traditionally associated with age. We baby boomers are quickly swelling the ranks of the over-sixty population, but rather than using our numbers to insist on dignity and respect for elders, we try to pretend we are still young. We dye our hair, we don’t ask for discounts at the movie theater, we want to be called something other than “grandpa” or “grandma” by our kids’ children. We like being told we look younger than our age. We don’t like being called “old.”
I admit I participate in this. When someone tells me I look younger than my sixty-five years, I beam and say “Thank you,” instead of taking the braver and more mature stance in paraphrase of Gloria Steinem, “This is what sixty-five looks like!” Although I’m supposedly on the path to “go gray,” I still see the hair colorist every few months. When someone tells me I’m not old, I don’t argue much. In my private thoughts, I think, “I am much younger-minded than others my age,” and so on. Of course, keeping the mind and body functioning on a par with a younger age is a worthy, life-enhancing goal. Considering all things young more desirable than the wisdom and perspective that has been gleaned over a lifetime is not.
In the workplace, younger people may be faster and have sharper memories. They also have a handle on the contemporary popular culture, since we idolize youth and encourage young people to take the lead in determining what is “of the moment.” As throughout the twentieth century, technology plays a part in perpetuating the value of youth over older age: Young people have, at each generation – not of humans, but of computers – a better handle on the state of the art. This perpetuates both the youth culture and the hiring practices of the work place. What is lost is the value of the human skills that it takes a lifetime to learn.
Young people fall in love, but it takes a lifetime really to learn to love. Tolerance for others, patience, perspective and other human values invaluable to the work place take many years to develop within us. Younger people may grasp and incorporate the corporate culture, it takes wisdom to truly think in terms of “we.” The same can be said of the political arena. Politicians and corporate types may well be over forty, but the competitive values of our youth oriented culture are the values they reflect. In fact, as a nation, we are growing older. Isn’t it time we grew up?